Lessons from Jewish Wisdom Literature

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Here are some thoughts on various essentials of “wisdom literature” found in a portion of the Talmud called “ethics of the fathers” (“Pirke Avot”).

The keys to a successful life

“Accept a Torah master over yourself; make a friend and judge everyone favorably” (Pirke Avot 1:6).

Although the sages refer to learning Torah, this lesson can be applied to any study. The idea is to accept that learning is of crucial importance – it is mentioned first. No deadline is mentioned. This indicates that learning should be a lifelong endeavor. The Torah scholar is one who embarks on daily study and accepts the fact that he or she has begun a lifelong journey, just as scholars know they will never exhaust the endless quest. what is the study of any substantive subject.

Likewise, academic study requires the same patience, depth, and commitment as the Jewish source texts. These are the qualities of any truly educated person in any field of study.

The second part basically says don’t “go it alone” in life. We need others, we need a friend, we need feedback and a sounding board for our thoughts and actions. The pandemic has certainly made us realize this.

The teacher can be a Chavruta or study partner, someone who shares your interest. A variety of approaches, formal and informal, allow for different ways of interacting with text. It is no coincidence that “friend” is mentioned after “teacher”. Both involve building lasting relationships of mutual respect. The friend is “for yourself” because extending yourself for another is a benefit to both of you, as you gain from it as much as your friend.

Lifelong learning and the development of true friendships should give a person an appreciation for others, an understanding of life, and the prospect of realizing that the world is made of others.

Finally, “Judge everyone favorably”. Lifelong learning and the development of true friendships should give a person an appreciation for others, an understanding of life, and the prospect of realizing that the world is made of others. We have to find common cause with people like us and with people who are not like us.

Wisdom, Strength, Wealth, Honor

“said Ben Zoma; Who is wise? One who learns from each person. Who is strong? One who exercises control over himself. Who is rich? The one who is happy with his lot. Who is honoured? One who honors others” (Pirke Avot, 4:1).

As with study, wisdom does not come from within us but by learning from others. Not just a person or a group but “of each person”. Broadening one’s horizons, improving one’s perspective is the key to wisdom.

Strength is not power over others, as we too often see in human relations and international affairs, but in people’s ability to fight their demons and understand themselves in order to act with grace and dignity born of self-respect. and respect for others.

Wealth will never satisfy, no matter how much one has, unless one is grateful for what one has, because there is no end to acquiring wealth. Ben Zoma does not suggest fatalism and acceptance of poverty, but rather advocates a general attitude that makes gratitude, rather than greed, the goal.

Honor is mentioned last because it is the sum of the previous parts: if one is wise, strong and grateful, then one has the ingredients of honor. The supreme accomplishment is to have all the previous blessings and yet not to seek honor, but to be able to recognize the accomplishments of others. This is where the person Ben Zoma sees as a whole person in a world of fragmented lives resides.

The source of hatred and division

“Any dispute that is for heaven’s sake will last; but he who is not for heaven’s sake will not last. What kind of fight was for heaven’s sake? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. And who wasn’t for heaven’s sake? The dispute of Korach and all his company” (Pirke Avot, 5:20).

Hillel and Shammai were two Talmudic scholars with differing views on most matters, but they were both true seekers of truth and they honored each other’s quest. Korach, on the other hand, challenges Moses for the leadership of the Jewish people out of jealousy and self-glorification.

Differences of opinion are necessary and good. If everyone thinks the same way, no one really thinks very much or very deeply. The Talmud is a long, drawn-out discussion in which arguments are the norm and there is usually no “winner”. The point of all of this is to bring the facts of the case to light for thoughtful insight and reflection.

The question is how we argue. What is the nature of our speech? Canadian poet EJ Pratt wrote, “The mark of the learned man is not in his boasting that he has built his mountain of facts and stood on top of it, but in his admission that there may be other peaks in the same range with men on them, and that although their view of the landscape may be different from his, it is nonetheless legitimate.

Our mission

“You are not obliged to perform the task, but you are not free to withdraw from it” (Pirke Avot, 2:21).

The saying refers to the study of Torah, but presents itself as a principle that can be applied universally. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it: “We will not complete the journey; therefore inspire others to continue what we have started.

No one can achieve all that is planned in Pirke Avot, because we are mortal and fallible. We cannot therefore be “demanded” of us to undertake to do everything that needs to be done, to reform the world by ourselves. Nevertheless, we must contribute, shoulder some of the burden, shoulder some of the responsibility, and inspire others to continue the effort.

Jewish scripture is not just a formulation of Jewish law. It should be understood as an intergenerational conversation about values, ethics and a philosophy of life. It is meant to stimulate us as individuals and as a people as it embodies the moral framework of Western civilization and remains an unrivaled treasure for the inquisitive mind.

Translations adapted from Pirke Avos: Maharal of Prague by Rabbi Tuvia Basser


Dr. Paul Socken is Emeritus Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Waterloo.

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